Multiple are the inspirations behind Watcher, but it’s Alfred Hitchcock’s shadow that looms largest over this Bucharest-set cat and mouse thriller.
Rear Window is a not-so-subtle model for this stalker story, and it’s clear from the opening sequence. A young couple is having sex on the sofa as the camera zooms out of their picture window. A trick to reveal the title card, as an elegant, pink font appears against the icy hues of a complex of apartments.
Presented at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, the film marks the directorial debut of Chloe Okuno after her impressive horror short movie Slut. Not too dissimilarly, Watcher follows a woman becoming the target of a sociopath, but the action takes place in the nearly deserted Romanian capital rather than rural Texas.
A wintery Bucharest is where former actress Julia (It Follows’ Maika Monroe) relocates with her husband Francis (Karl Glusman). Originally from Romania, Francis can speak the language and has moved there to seize a job opportunity. Julia, on the other hand, often finds herself lonely and bored. A montage sees her trying to learn Romanian and adjusting to a new life she doesn’t seem too excited about.
Uneasiness ensues when Julia realizes she is being watched by a mysterious man living in the squalid block of flats across the street. The man’s flat makes for a jarring contrast with Julia and Francis’ expensive, pastel apartment. The sense of being controlled intensifies as the woman believes the same man who lives across the street is following her around the city. Meanwhile, a serial killer is targeting women in the area where Julia lives, as news reports dub him The Spider.
Watcher is a female-led, icy thriller following a classic formula
Benefiting from a relatively short runtime, Watcher manages to be compelling and effectively terrifying. The script by Zack Ford abides by the rules of a classic thriller, tying up all seemingly loose ends in a tense three-act structure punctuated by several jaw-dropping twists.
And it’s visually stunning, too. The story is painted in brushes of cold color grading courtesy of cinematographer Benjamin Kirk Nielsen, and it’s all the more unsettling for that. The camera closes in on Julia as the events unfold, amping up the discomfort and claustrophobia to the max. The lead doesn’t think she’s safe in the street, nor does she feel comfortable in her own house, and her fears drives a wedge in her relationship with Francis.
Just like the couple’s flat, Watcher’s Bucharest is pretty but devoid of any real human contact. The protagonist’s neighbor Irina (Madeline Anea) is the only exception in a rather indifferent world. After an awkward start, she and Julia bond over their respective, peculiar lonelinesses. They vow to look out for one another, and it’s heartbreaking knowing their promise might be broken by external forces.
Despite this new friendship and her marriage, the protagonist is mostly on her own, fighting her battle against an unknown threat. The watcher is but a silhouette whose features slowly come into focus?
Scared and alone, Julia has to navigate a difficult reality where she can trust no one, not even herself. Drawing from other female-gaze-y apartment thrillers — and there are plenty of lackluster examples at this point — Watcher, too, treads the fine line between reality and paranoia to question its lead’s credibility, but it works thanks to its central, beautifully restrained performance. Monroe portrays Julia as a woman who’s been on the edge for a while, and well before this supposedly external menace has come to terrorize her.
Dismissing the female experience
Better than Swedish thriller Knocking, the audience is unsure whether to doubt Julia’s sanity or the intentions of the men around her. Frustration grows as Julia’s husband and all the male characters inadvertently dismiss her experience with their hyper-rational approach. Sure, their attitude isn’t malicious. Yet, their words sting like a series of sexist micro-aggressions aimed to brush off what they, as men, can’t possibly understand. Watcher bottles the genuine terror of navigating the world as a woman, feeling constantly scrutinized and exposed. Being continuously watched, but never truly seen, or heard.
The movie manages to cleverly spin the watcher-watched dynamics on its head. It’s apparent when Julia becomes increasingly obsessed with the man she thinks is following her, played by a perfectly cast Burn Gorman. The protagonist is sure that this man is the same who lives across the street from her and even goes as far as following him.
Monroe and Gorman as Julia and the watcher are the stars of some nerve-racking confrontations, the highlights of the film. The tension between them peaks in a masterfully acted, airtight sequence in a metro carriage that will have viewers on the edge of their seats.
The final act of Watcher demands the audience suspend their disbelief to deliver a solid, satisfying epilog. It may not reinvent the wheel, but the film makes clever use of a well-established formula. This results in a frightening, compact story that puts both Monroe and Okuno on the map and confirms Gorman as one of the most magnetic faces in the industry.
Stefania Sarrubba is a feminist entertainment writer based in London, UK. Traumatized at an early age by Tim Curry’s Pennywise and Dario Argento’s films, she grew up convinced horror wasn’t her thing. Until she sank her teeth into cannibal movies with a female protagonist. Yum.